It’s Chanukah and, as usual, I feel a strong conflict. My Jewish self wants to celebrate Jewish holidays and Chanukah is one of them. When I was a child I remember playing with dreidels (a form of children’s gambling) and eating delicious latkes (potato pancakes). The competition with Christmas had not begun back then, and we truly considered the holiday to not be that important. I enjoyed lighting the candles and eating the latkes, but there wasn’t much there there.
When I attended Hebrew School I learned about the evil Seleucid Empire and how they tried to force the Jews to worship their gods and how they desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. The brave Maccabees fought the Seleucids and won . . .Yahoo! Now we can be Jews without anyone imposing their views on us. There isn’t much of a spiritual component to this story, just one band of fighters winning over a temporarily weak empire involved in other wars, not very inspiring to me at all. Then, as an adult I learned about the original story of Chanukah that made me want to celebrate it even less! The conflict was really a civil war between Hellenizing Jews and traditionalists. These traditionalists, who won the battle, were more like the Taliban than liberators.*
Now what? The sages had difficulty with the Maccabees too. They were not keen on making Chanukah a holiday, but the people were celebrating so they created a story about the miracle of the oil. The holiday then symbolized hope, light in darkness, and took on a more universal and less militaristic quality. Also, we put our Chanukiot (what most people call menorahs) in the window to show that we are Jews and we are not afraid to let others know that we are Jews. I like that, too. As we know, it has not always been easy to be a Jew in places where Jews are a minority. Chanukah, like all Jewish holidays, clearly evolved and took on new meanings. For example, activists for social justice created a myth that the Maccabees were freedom fighters.
What does Chanukah mean to us today? Universally, bringing light into the dark winter gives us hope. For me, this could be enough. I’m happy to let go of the story of the Maccabees. At the same time, however, Chanukah is about taking pride in our Jewish roots and not being afraid to express our culture in the midst of a majority who celebrate other holidays of light. This year, I dedicate my celebration of Chanukah to Muslims who are experiencing discrimination and fear fueled by a few radical extremists who profess to have the same faith. Together we need to light the darkness of hate and fear.
Shalom / Salaam
*My reference to the Taliban is not necessarily accurate; i.e., there are differences of opinion about how much force was exerted on the Idumaeans and Ituraeans by the Hasmoneans to conform to Judean ways (be circumcised, for example), not to mention that the Maccabees and the Hasmoneans are not synonymous.